A Pilgrimage for the Absent-Minded
Giotto's frescoes attract art lovers and the city's university students, but pilgrims of another ilk have long secured Padua's place on the map. For more than 700 years, the enormous Basilica di Sant'Antonio has drawn millions from around the world. A mendicant Franciscan monk born in Lisbon, Antonio spent his last years in Padua. He died here in 1231 and was canonized almost immediately, and the basilica -- a fantastic mingling of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic styles -- was begun within a year.
St. Anthony is one of the Roman Catholic Church's most beloved saints -- and one of Italy's most popular namesakes -- universally known for his powers to locate lost keys or sunglasses, lost causes, lost everything. Countless handwritten messages left in a kind of mailbox in the side of his tomb within the church call upon this power to help find everything from lost love to lost limbs. For example, I lost something rather important in Padua -- my annotated copy of this book! A quick visit to St. Anthony did the trick: When I left the church and switched my cellphone back on, I received a call from the cafe where I had been that morning. The proprietor had found the missing book.
Both the church and the miracle worker are simply referred to as "il Santo," and the church warrants a visit for its artistic treasures and architectural importance, as well as for its religious significance.
The one unmissable sight in Padua is the Cappella degli Scrovegni (daily 9am–7pm; check website for evening openings 7–10pm) at Piazza Eremitani, an outwardly unassuming chapel commissioned in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker. Inside, however, the chapel is gloriously decorated with an astonishing cycle of frescoes by Florentine genius Giotto. The frescoes depict the life of the Virgin Mary and the life of Jesus, culminating with the Ascension and Last Judgment. Seeing Giotto’s powerful work in the flesh is spine-tingling; this is where he made the decisive break with Byzantine art, taking the first important steps toward the realism and humanism that would characterize the Renaissance in Italy.
If you have time, try to take in Padua’s other historic highlights. The vast Palazzo della Ragione on Piazza del Erbe (6€; Tues–Sun 9am–7pm, closes 6pm Nov–Jan) is an architectural marvel, a cavernous town hall completed in 1219, decorated with 15th-century frescoes by Nicola Miretto. Pay a visit also to the Basilica di Sant’Antonio (Piazza del Santo); admission free; daily 6:20am–7:45pm, closes 6:45pm Nov–Mar), the stately resting place of St. Anthony of Padua, the Portuguese Franciscan best known as the patron saint of finding things or lost people. The exterior of the church is a bizarre 14th-century mix of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic styles, while the interior is richly adorned with statuary and murals. In the piazza outside, don’t miss Donatello’s stupendous 1453 equestrian statue of the Venetian condottiere Gattamelata (Erasmo da Narni), the first large bronze sculpture of the Renaissance.
If you plan on taking in all the sights of Padua during a short visit -- or even if you plan on visiting the Scrovegni Chapel and only one other sight -- a PadovaCard is a worthwhile investment. In addition to free use of the city's buses and free parking in some areas, the 15€ card gets you admission to the Cappella degli Scrovegni (you must call to make reservations), Musei Civici Eremitani, the Palazzo della Ragione, and other sites in Padua and the province as well as a seat in Caffè Pedrocchi. The card is valid for 48 hours and can be shared by both an adult and a child younger than 12. You'll find the card for sale at tourist offices and at sites at which you can use the card. A 72-hour card costs 21€. See www.padovacard.it.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.